The History Interpreter’s Who Do You Think You Are? Experience

Well, my moment of fame is over. I was pleased that it wasn’t reduced to two seconds of the back of my head, or worse still condemned to the cutting room floor. I even managed to maintain my telephone voice for what was over three hours of filming; normally I reveal my Sawf Lunnun accent. I really have to stop deluding myself that I am still about thirty though – face lift is booked, that is if I can’t put in for a head transplant. My daughter is not very reassuring on this matter. First she tells me that one of her friend’s parents thought I looked young, then she spoilt it rather by saying, ‘she must be watching the wrong channel’. Probably my fault for wearing said daughter’s hand me up jumper for the occasion, fortunately she didn’t spot that I was also wearing her jewellery.

Anyway, back to the story. Last September the production team contacts the University of Exeter asking for an ‘expert’ on the Bible Christians. Someone remembers that they featured in my thesis and I get a request to do some research. Unfortunately it needs to be done like yesterday and I am about to set off for Australia. I squeeze it in amongst the packing, list making and general catching up that needs to be done before one disappears to the other side of the world for a month. Then the call comes back, could I do some more? and yes, that had to be done before I went away as well.

Post Australia, the production team call again, might I consider being filmed? I send a CV to prove that someone in the family history world might have heard of me and then, just before Christmas, I meet the production team. Presumably this is to check that I can string a sentence together and don’t have two heads. I sit back to wait for the call to say that filming is to begin.

The long awaited filming day for Who Do You Think You Are? arrives. I have already had a phone call to warn me that they are running late so I set off at 1.00pm. I drive through January drizzle and thick fog, fortuitously ignoring the sat-nav at a vital point, to arrive in High Bickington. We are filming in the local chapel. High Bickington is a blink and you’ll miss it sort of a place, how many chapels can there be? More than one as it turns out. There is no parking outside the one I can find so I make the mistake of parking outside the doctor’s, down a nearby no through road. As I wander back to the chapel, wondering if it was really worth taking out a second mortgage to pay the hairdresser this morning, I am approached by the local postman. ‘Am I here for the filming?’, he asks. So much for top secret; this is SO North Devon. He does however know I am in the wrong place, yes it is, or was, a chapel but it isn’t THE chapel. He offers to let me follow his van round to the correct location. I go back for my car. I make the wrong decision. Instead of reversing back into the main road, I attempt a 83 point turn, during which attempt I seriously thought I was going to be stuck for ever. I do eventually emerge unscathed and follow the friendly postman round a couple of corners to the right location. He gets out of his van to indicate where I should park. He asks me if I can say who is being filmed, I reply that I am sworn to secrecy. As he returns to his van two eager dog walkers enquire whether he has found out anything. I think every dog owner in a ten mile radius just ‘happened’ to be walking past that chapel on that afternoon, several of them on numerous occasions. Then there was the man opposite who spent over an hour cleaning his car in the rain.

Inside the chapel a lovely lady called Margaret has turned on every available heater and is dispensing tea and coffee. The local archivist is also there to guard a document that we plan to use. They have not yet been told who the celebrity is to be. They think, based on a memorial in the chapel, that it is Tim Wonnacott. It isn’t Tim Wonnacott. Two other chapel ladies are hovering expectantly. We receive two more phone calls from the production team warning of and apologising for, delays. This is a miracle in itself as it is dependent on a) my phone being in the one part of the chapel where there was signal, b) my having it turned on, c) me recognising my ring tone and d) me being able to work out which button to press to answer it. When I say I haven’t yet used the £15 worth of credit that was on the phone when I bought it in July 2006, you’ll get the idea. The archivist is already worrying about the work he could be doing back in the office.

They arrive, much to the relief of the dog population of High Bickington and the sensation seekers can melt away; this is so not going to be a secret. The celebrity is Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace. When I learnt this I was just grateful that it wasn’t a rap star or a footballer; I had at least heard of him and could recognise him. Before his name had been revealed I had tried tracing forwards from the research I had done for the programme to see if it led to someone famous but I had failed. Once I had the name, I traced backwards to find out why – there was an mis-indexing in the records.

My cooking is of the ‘there is no smoke it must be salad’ variety but I know my younger daughter and her husband are great fans so I have bought one of Gregg’s books hoping he might be approachable enough for me to get it signed for them. I have chosen the pudding book, Gregg examines it like he hasn’t seen it before. Apparently it featured as a Christmas present on East Enders. I later discover that Masterchef is also one of my elder daughter’s favourite programmes and feel suitably guilty that I haven’t got a book signed for her as well. Gregg was wonderful to work with, completely approachable and friendly. Had anyone felt nervous they would have been totally at ease. Comments like ‘Don’t ruin this Janet, there will be 7 million people watching’, were only made after he realised that I wasn’t fazed by the experience and that non-scripted ‘performing’ wasn’t new to me. I even manage to give as good as I get. Gregg: ‘Now look, Janet, we had a list of 27 names we could have chosen from for this.’ Me: ‘Yes, but 26 of them were mine.’ He also keeps up a stream of truly awful jokes. Sue, the director is keeping a note of these for the benefit of her nine year old.

Chris the sound man shoves his hand down my jumper to attach a microphone. An enormous umbrella light is erected so that it still looks daylight when it gets dark. I have three documents to show Gregg. His ancestral story so far has been sad, well it isn’t going to get any better with my bit, or the bits that follow. We are to sit on the back pew and twist round uncomfortably to reach the documents that are on a shelf behind us. This is firstly, quite difficult to achieve without knocking each other’s knees but also very uncomfortable. After three hours we are locked in a bizarre twisted position and I am glad that am not still parked where the 83 point turn would be necessary as my neck doesn’t move. The insight into the way the programme works is fascinating. The celebrities really don’t know what is coming. Although we do have to do some retakes and go over things so we can be filmed from different angles, it is very spontaneous. Amy, from the production crew, is keeping continuity notes so she knows which part of the document we have pointed to and with which finger. It is quite an experience maintaining a conversation where only one of you knows the ‘script’ and I have to steer Gregg in the right direction so we don’t stray into areas that are not to be revealed until later on.

Finally the afternoon is over and we say our goodbyes. I tell Gregg that I am glad he wasn’t a rap artist I hadn’t heard of and he gives me a hug. As I am going out of the door Chris the sound man realises that I am still wired up to his microphone and has to retrieve it. I still have to negotiate my way across the pitch dark, uneven car park but my day is done.

 Since the programme went out last night I have been overwhelmed with messages and comments from people who watched. Some are already saying ‘Best Who Do You Think You Are? ever’ and this from people who don’t know me. It has done wonders for my Twitter following and I have heard from people I haven’t seen in years. I wonder if I will be pressed for autographs as I walk down the street or if I should look out the sunglasses before I venture out later on? If you missed it, where were you? It is available on iplayer.


8 comments on “The History Interpreter’s Who Do You Think You Are? Experience

  1. […] “The History Interpreter’s Who Do You Think You Are? Experience – The account of my appearance on the Who Do You Think You Are? programme last August was certainly the most popular – with over 600 hits.” […]

  2. Sorry, Janet, but you are mistaken. The Aussie series are separate series of WDYTYA with Aussie celebrities taking part. I seem to remember that the UK series have also been shown in Australia. Yes – I have just found the details at

  3. Judy Webster says:

    Thanks for this interesting and very entertaining account of what goes on behind the scenes. I loved it!

  4. I sat and watched on via the Sky recording devise tonight (it was broadcast lastnight). Great show & I would agree with many of my fellow Guild members one of the better programmes. Very informative & amusing blog post.

  5. Well done Janet! The programme really was one of the best – and we have watched the Aussie series as well as the British. Your comments here were really illuminating as I have often wondered about the back-room stuff. Love your sense of humour. Fellow Guild of One-Name Studies member

  6. Linda Hauley says:

    Unfortunately, I can’t view the episode as it is not available for Canada to see. Very disappointing!

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